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Contriving, Deriving and Arriving at a Poem

You can’t help but frame a scene in words or in art. Something is included. Something is left out. Whether that is a scene of order or disorder, narrative or anti-narrative something is presented.

We saw on travels a famous statue and being with memory I have, I don’t remember the sculpture or artist. I was in high school and university art class. it was the rape of __some greek dudette__ and I thought it horrific. It is extremely delicate in suggesting rape, a hand grabbing a butt so far as shown force, but the female is portrayed as held in fear and threat. As gender portrayals, it it another point for male is angry beast myth and female is victim object. It seemed so far as portrayal, difficult to do in a non-film era. It is vivid and emotive and in mid-motion in marble. It sets in contrast the inertness of material and the permanence of carving with the volatile moment. If the artist chose the next frame where she won and knifed the dude (The title confers him the victory but ah, one wishes for not another iteration of female loss even if reversing genders gains nothing for changing the basic redemptive violence myth). Point being, if the story were contrived in still-frame later in the narrative, would be a stable diorama: Regret, grief and death are static. It would have less shock value for being at rest. Instead the narrator of stone doesn’t let such high emotion passes and he does not permit it to pass to her victory or resolution. It makes it more epic to be a dramatic moment of wrestling. This is what is heralded worthy of telling.

To bring that back to poems, there is a plethora of tying old myths, epic names, to everyday struggles. It is one acceptable depth of poem.

Shiki wanted to consecrate the everyday. Some contemporary poets want to validate the normal rather than the transcendent mountain breezes that shrinks a person small. It can be unintentional satire to be drawing connections between the banal to stub and the great cruelty of life.

Is it a poet’s job to give a better perspective, a corrective narrative, or just a personal one, or impersonal one? How close is the poet to the world? To the reader?

A lot of diversity in poetics comes down to ideology of what is worth mentioning. What is valuable? Is the everyday exempt from mention? Essential? The personal? The political? The extraneous? What mind must one be in? Does one get to write in “finished state” something which is petty? What if it is petty but comedic? Does that save its face? Do we speak of only permanent? Or archive only the transitional? If global? Or only if of this time and place? Or only if set in contrast, not to the rest of life outside the poem, but set cheek to serif inside the poem in contrasting weights? What about light poems of things that aren’t intending lasting resonance?

Does poetry have to be dense in the bang per beat of syllable? Or is that a preference. I tend to get fixated on what I like. Rule-bound is rather like bowel-bound. I get preoccupied with the term haiku or poem. Essentially it is communicative act. That might not imply a conceptual meaning. Autistic hand flap that disperses nervous energy, body talking to itself. It is a broad sense of communication. The outward form of a poem inhibits meaning or aids it but if walls go up on hearing the word or seeing the shape suggesting poem and the checklist comes out — the chance of hearing core meaning or appreciating the speech act or visual or spatial gesture — something is lost.

To repeat myself from other blog

Glad to sit in with some Zen River poems and haibun. They are comfortable, casual, restful sort of nature walks thru words. I love how it related being honored by being near an owl without adding to it something fancy-brained-justifying as symbolic or mystical. Reality being good enough is nice to see.

I like how the stories are interspersed with letters dialoguing with the stories, which themselves are sometimes haibun* as well. It makes the collection feel like a community in dialogue more than anthologies usually do. Anthologies often have blinders partitioning section from section. Here poems and people interrelate.

Haibun is a poetry form of a prose story with a haiku that relates and expands or concludes the whole, or are set out between sections through the whole story.

Starting back where I left off in Frogpond Vol 32:1, I came to paul m.’s column on haiku writing practice. He hit on something that I have been mulling, and something which struck me about the ZenRiver collection. These experiences intersected with something said at the writers conference as well. Two lady panelist on stage collaborated on a sentence of how editing poems needs a light touch. (Lisa Foad and who?) They said poems/ ideas are like pie crust and if you overwork it, it fails. (It stood out as such a feminine domain metaphor at the time. That is another story.)

Intersecting with this is the awareness of how I tend to read thick and deep and want to send my words thru cross-checking so I cannot be misinterpreted. And realizing that when I write if there is not double-meaning I tend to not pursue something as if that level of complexity is the only option. I’m aware of being inhibitingly critical of failing to meet desired form so instead of changing form, I am silent, which goes no where in getting closer to meaning or function.

Part of that desire to write and promote multiple level of oblique meanings is coming from the pleasure of conversations with poets. I can be read symbolically and communication can be faster and more effortless since ideas can leap faster and people are willing to leap. (Non-writers tend to be more linear and pragmatic and I have to speak in low density and unpack every phrase in a way that reminds me of the satirical remark on Napoleon, who was a military leader of France. Not now, but a very long time ago. France is in Europe. It’s a country. What can we safely assume a fellow communicator knows?) Not every non-writer is like that. Not every writer is swift. But in general whitewash, there’s some pattern. A pattern where speaking on mutltiple levels at once is possible and rewarded with pleasure. To speak plainly and without weight is not parsed or is a non-event or anti-climatic.

The range of communication where there is no direction, only shooting the breeze, passing time, with no instrumental purpose is part of a healthy balance of communication. To say that one must not write an ill-thought-out poem, or bury it is to say one must never be given allowances for being sick, or tired or crabby. It is holding thru a narrow range of kinds of permittable perfection.

At this point in divergent sources of thoughts moving towards convergent I come to paul m. (p. 38-39) “I was raised in a society in which we are taught that things mean other things. Stars and tea leaves tell our fortune. A black cat can’t cross my path without my recognizing it as a bad omen.”

I hadn’t considered this cultural embedding for dual or multiple layers of meaning. Even if I scoff and find weak-minded superstitions of harbingers, part of me reacts because it fears it may be true or wants such mystical guidance to simplify the data stream from random into meaningful. Our culture is steeped in signifiers. And my rejection of ‘superstition’ was marked by only accepting a narrow subset, acceptable superstitions of sanctioned/sanctified superstition/symbolism i.e. rain can’t just be wet. It has to be a personal reminder from a personal god of forgiveness and mercy.

paul m. goes on to say,

I learned to approach poetry as if the poet was saying, “Let me tell you something through something else.” […] But instead of leading with what I am trying to say, with what I want the objects to say, I should listen to the objects themselves.

What is remarkable about letting an object speak for itself is that it allows you to discover something new about it. You will never find anything new, much less report on anything new, if you approach your subject with your mind already made up.”

While unconscious has a mind of its own and may force an unexpected direction, yes, largely, the scientific method of composition relies on an open mind, not forgone conclusion.

The issue of contrived poems, pat poems, come out of this same mould of trying too hard, forcing the poem, containing more than one needs to. Earlier in his article he mentions that there needn’t be a stigma against desk-ku. I suppose it isn’t the how or where of composition, but whether it works. As he sas later, (p. 40) “it is important to remember that each poem is two poems: the writer’s and the reader’s.” Writer and reader are looking to cobble pieces.

It is a fun constraint to try to layer in every poetic device you can without letting any of them draw fire on the subject. It is lovely to let things pop into different weight of significance. To mandate that to oneself is to mute oneself. It forces unuseful, unnecessary silences. What starts as a game becomes a death match of desk poems with the life well-trained, but mechanical.

We can make a papercut ending to a poem that triggers some memory of something like the statuary in death grip. We can make a two line envoi that makes the reader reevaluate that which went before in new light and new depth. To a degree, that can retell a truth. To a degree that feels like a parlour game, or boilerplate mystery. We want closure signalled somehow but having read so much as to predict the common ways, can we keep authentically doing the laugh track and gasp track, or do we widen the possibility so that observation without complications, listing as selective aspects of note can be poetry without stigma or contention?

Still my bias is for things that are either meaning-loaded (picture poverty-region overloaded bus with people hanging off) or meaning avoidant where there is no intent to convey something that could have moral or serious intent. That misses a middle range. There’s pleasures to be had across the range. When one way gets fatigue, switch. It is not the domain of the form to switch, exclusively, but the tastes of reader and writer that can be fluid.

Related posts:

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  2. Vid Link: Poem-making How Does a Poem…, a video interview with Billy Collins [ at BigThink via 37 Days] is worth each minute....
  3. Poem Link, Dunn Decorum is by Stephen Dunn from his New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994. It’s on a workshop debating the right word choice for a poem/ experience on “making love”? or not....

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One Response

  1. Pearl,

    interesting views on nature of the occasion & process of the poem: haiku in particular.

    I take away from this the need for more Chris Faiers celebration (the Gordon review of “Zen River” is wonderful, as is the woman): more attention to Eastern writing in Canada. Has anyone ever won a G-G for a book of haibun, tanka, haiku, etc? And if not, why not?

    I like the oblique style of yours, Pearl: intersecting at just the right places (examples too many to mention in a response box).

    You seem to have catalogued a uniquely Eastern set of questions. What’s at stake for you? Disappearance of the need for haiku? Questions traverse both a playful and doleful landscape. Perhaps the intent is to make ‘constructivist’ changes to the haiku form? You seem to have a visual artist’s way with forms in general: sort of like reading Pollock reading his own canvas.

    It’s also reminiscent of the Susumu Takiguchi “Word Haiku Review” discussions on non-traditional haiku styles I used to follow.

    Good stuff!



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